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‘Life is only just beginning’: Book of soldier’s letters to family show endurance of ordinary Aussie at war

Albert McKnight6 March 2021
Soldier Bill Corby in WWII, and Greg Bartlett holding copy of his new book.

Left: World War II solider Bill Corby with an injured hand at Elmina, near Tripoli, in Libya. Right: Greg Bartlett holding a copy of his new book, Yours Lovingly Bill. Photos: Supplied.

The letters of a solider who served on World War II’s Western Front and Eastern Front, that were written to his family back home, demonstrated such love he had for his wife and daughters that a Bega Valley author was inspired to publish them in a book.

Greg Bartlett, from Tura Beach on the NSW South Coast, has released his book, Yours Lovingly Bill, using the 300 letters written by his wife’s grandfather, Bill Corby, during the five years he spent as a signaller in the Australian army.

“It is the story of an ordinary man’s dedication to his family, his love, his endurance and his persistence,” says Greg.

“It’s the voice we don’t hear much today, that of quiet humility, acceptance and a dry sense of humour.

“He was very committed to the idea there would be a life after the war.”

For instance, in one of his last letters to his wife, Thelma, he wrote: “What do you mean the best five years of our lives have gone? I’ll show you when I get back that life is only just beginning. We have such a lot of things to do, honey. We have one advantage, at least we have a start.”

Historical photo of soldier Bill Corby.

Soldier Bill Corby served during World War II. Photo: Supplied.

Bill was 33 when he joined the First Australian Imperial Force (AIF), leaving behind his daughters, Dawn, 10, and Fay, 8. Because he was only able to see his family for a dozen weeks on leave during the years he was in the army, the letters became an important form of connection between them.

“He said he didn’t want to write about war as war,” says Greg. “I think his intention was to protect his family from the realities of war.”

Because the letters were censored by the government, Greg says he had a stroke of luck when he found Bill’s notebook detailing 14 months of his service from the time he first boarded a ship to leave to when he was in the Middle East, where he was able to write in more explicit detail.


READ ALSO: National Archives to digitise more than 650,000 WWII service records for free access


“He talks in great depth about some of the terrible experiences he had in Greece and Crete that he wouldn’t put into the letters because the government wouldn’t have let him,” says Greg.

For example, in his notebook Bill talks about escaping from Greece on a ship called Costa Rica, but when the ship was hit by a German plane and started to sink they had to jump to a destroyer anchored nearby.

Greg says in the letters he described it as a “dip in the brine” to his family, but the notebook showed it was a much more terrifying experience.

Bill Corby's wife, Thelma, and children, Dawn and Fay.

Bill Corby’s wife, Thelma, and children, Dawn and Fay, at his departure for the war. Photo: Supplied.

The letters show Bill and Thelma were very close, although they did have moments of friction, such as when Bill described US soldiers as glamorous, overpaid and described women dating them as “low as a snake’s belly”, or when he talked about how he did not believe conscripted Australian soldiers deserved the same pay as those in the AIF.

It was also clear from the letters that Bill was a very doting father, says Greg, and sadly he missed a huge portion of his daughters’ lives because by the time he returned home for good they had grown from young children to teenagers.

Fay, Greg’s mother-in-law who moved to Bega in 1986, reported to him that Bill was a changed man after the war. He was deeply affected, had mood swings and drank.


READ ALSO: ‘They were only boys’: Crookwell war widows on the mateship forged on the frontline


He was diagnosed with cancer in 1959 and spent the last part of his life appealing to the Repatriation Board to see if there was some way it could look after Thelma once he was gone. However, he died before it came to a decision.

Greg says people could learn about the idea of endurance from Bill’s story.

“This generation had a job to do and they paid the price of separation, but they were committed to it,” he says.

You can buy Yours Lovingly Bill at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, or at Candelo Books in Bega.

What's Your Opinion?

3 Responses to ‘Life is only just beginning’: Book of soldier’s letters to family show endurance of ordinary Aussie at war

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Diana Honan Diana Honan 11:40 am 12 Mar 21

I’m very concerned about the resumption of LOGGING along Larry’s Mtn Rd.Moruya. After the devastating fires in the area with so much habitat destruction, it is tragic to remove those areas of forest which survived. They should be preserved. A remark was made to me “oh but those areas logged will n ot be touched again for 50 years!” It will take longer than that for one habitat tree with hollows to grow. All for the sake of woodchip. Animals and birds don’t stand a chance. It brakes my heart!!

Diana Honan Diana Honan 11:36 am 12 Mar 21

I’m very concerned about the resumption of LOGGING along Larry’s Mtn Rd. After the devastating fires in the area with so much habitat destruction, it is tragic to remove those areas of forest which survived. They should be preserved. A remark was made to me “oh but those areas logged will n ot be touched again for 50 years!” It will take longer than that for one habitat tree with hollows to grow. All for the sake of woodchip. Animals and birds don’t stand a chance. It brakes my heart!!

Diana Honan Diana Honan 11:26 am 12 Mar 21

I’m wondering if Bill Bartlett was related to the Bartletts of Moruya. My mother was left on a doorstep in Sydney in 1924. She died in Cairns in 2007, never knowing of her origins. Four years ago I had a DNA test which resulted in the discovery of my mothers blood relatives. Bartlett from Moruya and Davidsons from Eden. I came to Moruya from Sydney in 1971 to work on a Brahman cattle stud, never dreaming that my relatives had such a close connection and some,even buried in Moruya.
I have so much information collected from the time I came to Moruya and married my dear Vince(who passed away in Dec 2018). Had even considered creating a Facebook group titled “Moruya NSW Memories”, but time will not allow, because I already have numerous Facebook groups including the cataloging Hoofs & Horns Magazines from 1946 to the 1970’s….a whole history of country life, horse shows and riding in Australia which should be preserved. It’s taken 3 years so far to photograph every page (minus rodeo which I think is cruel). I’m now up to 1971. I also came accross some first publications put out by EAR, the local radio station when it was created. These have a lot of interesting reading about local events in the 1980’s. I had my own radio programs back then, You’d be welcome to have them if interested. Have been heavily involved with Moruya poultry club and many other local activities in the 50 years since I moved from Sydney. I’ve been trying to contact Moruya Pigeon Club but can’t find a contact number. Friends are having trouble with large flocks of racing pigeons eating their poultry feed. Pigeons released in past years from distant towns but never making it back home have formed a large flock. They are pure bred racing pigeons but I’m desperately trying to save them from being trapped and EATEN by the poultry people!

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